Aug 13

U.S. Revenue Marine to Coast Guard (1790-1915)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019 12:01 AM

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As George Washington left his retreat in Mount Vernon to enter the office of the presidency, the newly established United States faced a myriad of issues. A new government was formed, and the people hoped this would not mirror the recent failure of the Articles of Confederation. Great Britain and Spain still occupied U.S. territory. Secession loomed in the West. The Army was inadequate, the Navy nonexistent, and the Treasury exhausted.

After the war, the new government of the United States had accumulated an impressive amount of debt to both its citizens and foreign countries. While Congress attempted to alleviate this through a new import tax, no department was formed to collect it. Washington, hoping to raise revenue, appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury.

On 4 August 1790, the United States Congress, urged on by Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine—later renamed the Revenue Cutter Service—on 31 July 1894. Between 1790 and 1798 the Revenue-Marine was the only armed U.S. maritime service, as the government had disbanded the Navy.

After the Slave Trade Act was enacted in 1794, the Revenue-Marine began intercepting ships illegally importing slaves into the United States.

The USRC Eagle Capturing the Mehitable during the Quasi-War with France. (Claire White-Peterson photo, courtesy USCGA Library.)

Quasi-War with France

The Quasi-War with France (1798-1801) prompted the reestablishment of a Navy, and the Revenue Marine fought alongside it, capturing or assisting in the capture of 20 French ships. The USRC Pickering captured ten of these. Revenue cutters were assigned to enforce the very unpopular Embargo Act of 1807, which outlawed nearly all European trade, import and export, through American ports. It was enforced until its repeal the following year.

1812–1848

In wartime, the Revenue-Marine was placed under the command of the U.S. Navy, and the cutters themselves were often placed into military service. USRC Jefferson made the first American capture of an enemy ship in the War of 1812, the brig Patriot, in June 1812.

After the War of 1812, British and Spanish sea power in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico weakened, allowing a resurgence of piracy along the Gulf Coast. Revenue cutters were dispatched to fight the pirates.

In 1832, Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane issued written orders for revenue cutters to conduct winter cruises to assist mariners in need, and Congress made the practice an official part of regulations in 1837. This was the beginning of the life-saving mission for which the later U.S. Coast Guard would become best known.

Revenue-Marine cutters again served under the U.S. Navy in the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848. The cutters were crucial for shallow-water amphibious assaults.

The USRC Harriet Lane. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.)

Civil War

On 11 April 1861, the USRC Harriet Lane fired the first shots of the maritime conflict in the American Civil War. The cutter fired a shot across the bow of the civilian steamship Nashville as it tried to enter Charleston Harbor during the bombardment of Fort Sumter because Nashville was flying no identifying flag. The civilian ship then promptly raised the U.S. standard, and Harriet Lane broke off.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the following order to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on 14 June 1863: “You will co-operate by the revenue cutters under your direction with the navy in arresting rebel depredations on American commerce and transportation and in capturing rebels engaged therein.” Revenue cutters also assisted U.S. Navy operations throughout the war.

SpanishAmerican War

With the outbreak of the Spanish–American War in 1898, the Revenue Cutter Service saw plenty of action in both the Cuban and Philippine theaters. Many revenue cutters were assigned to the blockade of Havana Harbor.

The following is a noteworthy event during the war. Together with Navy torpedo boat USS Winslow, USS Hudson fought against a Spanish gunboat and coastal batteries until forced to withdraw. Under extremely heavy fire, Hudson towed the disabled Winslow away from the battle. Congress awarded Frank H. Newcomb, the captain of Hudson, a Congressional Gold Medal for his bravery.

President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Coast Guard Act on 28 January 1915. This act combined the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service with the United States Life-Saving Service to form the new United States Coast Guard known today.